Lindsey Ardrey, Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana Commission on Racial Reconciliation Co-chairperson
Delivered on January 11th, 2017 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans.
One morning on my way into work, I was walking across the street to St. George’s School for chapel doing my “Self-important” walk. You know the walk, when you’re really feeling yourself. I was smiling at children as they passed by. Waving all-knowingly at parents as they drove up for car pool. My self-important thoughts (some might call this ego) assured me that as the lower school chaplain, without my presence the children would know nothing of God! Just think, how would they hear about Jesus? So since I’m a very important person who does very important things, I had this air of confidence in my stride. It was one of the first real cold days in New Orleans, so I had on my big coat with a scarf and took quick determined steps to expedite my time out in the cold. As I approached the school, I waved brightly and said good morning to one of the security personnel, an older Black woman. This woman looked me up and down and said in a firm voice, “I oughtta take a switch to you for not having something on your head.” All of my grown womanness and self-importance instantly fell away. Did she just say switch? Humorously, I wondered if I’d have to go to the nearest tree to fetch said switch, then bring it back to her. I had just been “mothered.” Overly humbled, I smiled and laughed because that’s all that I could do. She was right! It was cold and windy and I had very little hair on my head. My grandmother would’ve had a fit!
To intellectualize my experience of being mothered, Black feminists and creatives have called this “othermothering,” “motherwork,” and “community mothering” each with their own distinctions that we won’t go into. Pulling from pioneers before her, in her book titled Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart, Andrea O’Reilly articulates that “The African American tradition of motherhood centers upon the recognition that mothering, in its concern with the physical and psychological well-being of children and its focus upon the empowerment of children has cultural and political import, value, and prominence, and that motherhood, as a consequence, is a site of power for black women.” I’d like to say that again. That motherhood is a site of power for black women.
Tonight we honor the life of Frances Joseph Gaudet, whom I was unfortunately not able to meet. But my fortune is living in the light of her great legacy. So, when I reflect on my encounter at the school, I imagine that is what Ms. Gaudet may have been like. Giving it straight to the young people and to the prisoners she helped to clothe. Maintaining that perfect balance of being firm yet loving and seeing their humanity inside of all their flaws. I think that Ms. Gaudet would be proud to know that we’re here celebrating her in this church tonight, but her CV and resume show us that she was a doer. You don’t tap into your site of power and just sit on your hands. She was a mover. She made things happen, so I encourage us to not get cozy in our pews, or in the work we’ve already accomplished. Let us take charge and live her legacy. Let us put feet to the movement she started.
And there’s no better way to do this, than to follow the lead of a man Blessed Gaudet was indeed emulating. Because to bring God’s dream into fruition, it’s going to take all of our combined gifts and talents and Jesus has given us the blueprint. Jesus wasn’t a preacher who said nice things to good people to make them feel better. Jesus, because it was countercultural to talk and hang out with the people he hung out with, was a bit of an agitator. Not necessarily, I don’t think, because he sought to upset the status quo—though he definitely knew what he was getting himself into—but because he loved with his whole heart. Jesus saw God in every single person and showed love with his entire body. Here’s an example. My favorite Gospel is the Gospel of Mark. And as the elder Gospel, Mark is a little rough around the edges and doesn’t contain many of the explanations, boastings, or justifications that came with the later formation of the church. There are mysteries, unanswered questions, and Jesus is still trying to get it right. In this way, Jesus feels attainable to me.
In Mark chapter 8 (verses 22-26) Jesus is approached by a blind man who begs to be healed. Jesus takes the man’s hand inside of his own and leads him out of the village. When they’re alone, the Gospeller says that Jesus takes his own saliva and puts it on the man’s eyes, then lays his hands on him. Jesus asks, “Can you see anything?” The man responds that he can see people but they look like walking trees. Apparently whatever Jesus did, didn’t take hold the first time. But Jesus knows that this can be done, that this man can be healed. So he concentrates even harder and looks intently at this man with no sight. Can you picture Jesus’ eyes bearing straight into yours? He lays his hands on him again and the man’s sight was restored. Think of how unclean this was back then, especially for a people so concerned with cleanliness. But Jesus did it. Jesus said, “I see you. I hear you. I know your pain, let me share it with you. Hold my hand and let’s go through this together.” Somehow Jesus knows pain and suffering and sorrow. I don’t exactly know how, but I do know that we cannot be afraid to touch our neighbors who are blind, who are hungry, who are thirsty. We cannot be afraid to touch our neighbors who are strangers, who are naked, who are sick and imprisoned.
And we cannot be afraid to ask ourselves the difficult questions. What are we really doing in a city whose schools are still mostly segregated? Are we doing all that we can to make our Episcopal schools look more like our colorful city? What are we doing to disrupt the school to prison pipeline? We can all be mothers and fathers and walk in love with Jesus and Blessed Gaudet as our guideposts because caring for others is a site of power. This is our power as Christians.
It’s the kind of power that burns so fiercely that it reshapes the dimensions of your heart. It’s the kind of power that hums low like a generator in the center of your being and sends tiny vibrations to your toes and to your fingers.
Motherwork, other mothering, community mothering. It’s using that power to tell a young man to pull his pants up or telling a young woman her skirt is too short. It’s telling a sufficiently grown woman to cover her head when it’s cold outside. It’s visiting people in prison. But it’s also using our imaginations to know a world without prisons. To know a world without racism. What good are they doing us? Do we feel safer? We created them both: racism and prisons which means that we can destroy them both. Let us use our power as Christians to take Blessed Gaudet’s work further and not only reform our current systems of justice, but tear them down and rebuild them block by block using new material. There are cracks and fissures all through the wall and we keep running back for more cement. Taking our trusty trowels to smooth the rough edges and filling in the gaps only to find new cracks forming. So tonight, let’s not reduce Ms. Gaudet’s fire to mere dollars and cents. A nice woman who did good things. I’m sure she was and we know that she did, but she was a prison reformer, an activist, an educator. When she knocked on one door and was denied entry, she knocked on another door. And another and another. And eventually she built her own door, attached to walls with windows and a roof overhead. She called it a home. She called it a school. This is what love made manifest looks like.
In tonight’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” These aren’t mere metaphors describing human metaphysical states. Yes, they can be but Jesus’ words are meant to be taken literally and Ms. Gaudet certainly took them that way. And so the righteous asked the king, “When? When did we do this?” And the king responded by saying, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” That’s our call. In New Orleans, it’s not difficult to run across “the least” on any given day. It’s nothing to step over a homeless man blocking entry into a restaurant or to avoid eye contact with the woman holding a sign and asking for money on
And so the righteous asked the king, “When? When did we do this?” And the king responded by saying, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” That’s our call. In New Orleans, it’s not difficult to run across “the least” on any given day. It’s nothing to step over a homeless man blocking entry into a restaurant or to avoid eye contact with the woman holding a sign and asking for money on neutral ground. I challenge us to seek out the other. Not just to see them, but to actively look for them.
Sunday night I attended the final service for All Souls, a place that fully embodied the vision of Blessed Gaudet’s legacy. The Bishop asked folks to share their stories about the church’s history and time after time, each person that took the microphone said that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they were looking for a church. In the midst of devastation, confusion, and loss people were looking for God. Their innate spiritual spidey senses perked up and they found each other. They formed a community and held church. Churches don’t have a monopoly over these things, but in times of uncertainty people look to the church to lead.
We are the church, and the times are uncertain. Our call is to make love manifest as Blessed Frances Gaudet showed us how. Because when her work was done and God called her home, I’m sure that God hugged her and said, “Well done, my daughter. Well done.” I wasn’t there, but that’s what I imagine happened. At the end of our days, let us come to God empty-handed with our palms to the sky, knowing that we did all that we could do.